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The University Revue: a golden age for student entertainers?

5 May 2017
Student satire has stood the test of time

Revues are a time-honoured tradition observed by universities internationally. At the University of Sydney, the revue is as strong as ever, with more shows and plenty of talented students getting involved each year.

2016 USYD Revue

Revues are comedic sketch-shows staged by students, riffing on a broad (and usually pun-heavy) theme and punctuated with ensemble songs and dances.  They’ve been a staple of University life since the first blocks of sandstone were laid. In the 1960s the production grew from a singular University show to a season, with students from the faculties of Medicine, Law, Architecture and Engineering branching out to host their own revues.

And it’s gained immense momentum ever since. The past decade has seen more and more students get involved, an interesting trend in contrast to the waning Australian performing arts scene. The blockbuster revue season now showcases 13 different revues, including this week’s ‘best of’ USYD Revue, and stretches across both semesters. This smorgasbord of shows means students sometimes participate in revues for the shows’ individual flairs, rather than faculty affiliations. For example, the Science Revue has developed a reputation for show-stopping dance numbers, attracting students from other faculties to join the troupe.

This expansion is largely owing to the continued support of the University of Sydney Union (USU), in recognition of the important historical and cultural role of these shows on campus. 

 “The revues are a side of University life that we’ve been fostering for such a long time now, so we see that as an important part of our history and legacy,” says Alistair Cowie, revue alumni and USU Director of Sales and Marketing. “But more importantly from a wider point of view, they’re a place in which a lot of Australia’s artistic talent has had its first chance to strut their stuff – we’re sort of serving a supportive apprenticeship here.”

Counted amongst revue alumni are the likes of the Chaser, Axis of Awesome and Aunty Jack, who all cut their teeth as students here. More recently, current student comedians Jenna Owen, Victoria Zerbst and Aaron Chen have landed roles on ABC 2’s John Conway Tonight.

Revues take the pulse of the University, and are invariably a reflection of their time – ruthlessly satirising current political and social issues, whilst drawing creative inspiration from pop culture. As an example of how Sydney’s revues keep pace with the times, 2016 saw the inaugural launch of the Identity Revue season, bringing together the relatively new Jew, Queer, Womn’s and PoC  (People of Colour) revues.

“There’s been a big push in issues of diversity and inclusion on campus over the past few years, and it’s something that students have been very vocal about,” explains Mr. Cowie.  “I very much think that these identity issues will define this 20 year period – 10 years either side of where we are now.”

The revue season is anchored by the USYD Revue, another recent outlet for the University’s creative talent. A semi-professional ‘best of’ package, it compiles the highlights of the previous year's revue season and is part of the Sydney Comedy Festival. Unlike the other productions, it gives student performers a chance to workshop their sketches with a professional director.

Enter Gabi Kelland, this year’s USYD Revue director. A former Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Sciences (2015) student, Gabi’s been immersed in the University’s performing arts scene since 2011 through Science Revue, the USYD Revue and MUSE (the University’s musical theatre ensemble).

Her mission this year is to make the revue relevant for all students.   

“The USYD revue should engender a community identity across the board,” Gabi explains. “Students watching it will have a good time, laugh and think the performers are great, but also feel like they’re part of the University community.”

This community element is echoed behind the stage, with performers forming close friendships and creative partnerships.  “It’s a very welcoming and encouraging place to try things, and you’re permitted to fail because the crowd is so forgiving,” says Ms. Kelland. 

See the USYD Revue at the Seymour Centre on 11 and 12 May, and the Identity Revues from 11 May - 3 June.